Everything was in place for the Bethlehem Steel to have a historic day for their return to the Lehigh Valley. Longtime captain James Chambers was making his 100th appearance for the club and the Steel were facing the Tampa Bay Rowdies and longtime Union favorite John McCarthy. But a miserable first half put Bethlehem in too deep of a hole to escape even with some late-game heroics from Chambers.
Because of a combination of injuries, suspension and international duty, the Steel were only able to dress 16 players for Saturday's match. That included the four first-team players in the starting XI, Freese, Real, Mackenzie, and Fontana. With Faris still dealing with his red card against Saint Louis, Shanyder Borgelin and Zachary Zandi were the main attacking options.
There were plenty of familiar faces on the Tampa Bay squad that traveled to Bethlehem. McCarthy got the start in goal and Yann Ekra, who briefly played for the Union in 2013, got the start in the midfield. Staying on the bench were former Union players Leo Fernandes, Chris Konopka and Antoine Hoppenot as well as former Steel player Brandon Allen.
Bethlehem felt out of sorts shortly after kickoff and they were never able to find a groove during the first 45 minutes of the match. They couldn't find a way to operate in the midfield and any stretch of possession was quickly shut down by the Rowdies through a skillful interception or a bad Bethlehem turnover.
With no luck in the midfield, that meant there was no offense for the Steel as well. Borgelin was the main offensive target, but his hold-up play just kept the ball in the midfield and that meant it quickly went back to the Rowdies.
The Steel did not manage a single shot in the first half and they didn't get a chance to touch the ball while inside the Tampa Bay penalty area. It was rare that they even moved it past midfield.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, kept the attack rolling during the first half. Their first goal came in the 13th minute off of a dangerous set-piece opportunity and blown Bethlehem defending. Zach Steinberger curled a free-kick for the far post from just outside the box. It slipped over a few Steel defenders and fell to an open Juan Tejada right in front of goal. He controlled the ball well and slammed it past Freese to open the scoring.
The second goal for Tampa Bay didn't come until the 34th minute. Tejada had space once again on the right side and he fired a low ball for the far post. Freese was able to get a brilliant touch to the ball to push it wide against the post, but the rebound went straight to Sebastian Guenzatti who tapped it into the open net.
All in all, Bethlehem was lucky to go into the half down by only two. Outside of the two goals, the defense was solid. And while the Rowdies had lots of possession in the offensive third, they got very few good looks on goal.
The Steel didn't immediately turn things around in the second half and their frustration turned into several physical fouls against the Rowdies. Cole Turner, Borgelin and Fontana would see yellow cards within the first 15 minutes.
Substituting on, Chavany Willis and Axel Picazo helped change the style for the Steel and they finally recorded their first shot in the 59th minute. That got a cheer from the crowd, although it's unclear if they were cheering the shot or seeing McCarthy get involved in the match.
The Steel saw improvement after this as the increased use of pace and counters helped to stretch the Tampa Bay midfield and create space for Bethlehem to operate. They won their first corner in the 67th minute and John McCarthy was finally called into action several times to come off his line and secure dangerous balls inside the box. Meanwhile, the Rowdies attack had pretty much petered out at this point. They themselves only managed one shot in the second half.
The speedier Bethlehem attack ultimately earned them a penalty in the 90th minute. Zandi got on a beautiful through ball at the top of the box and was about to be one-on-one with McCarthy when Tarek Morad pulled on his arm to take him down just inside the penalty area.
There was no doubt that the Bethlehem captain and first ever player to make a hundred appearances would get the opportunity for the penalty against his former teammate. Chambers went with a stuttering run up to freeze McCarthy and he buried his goal just inside the bottom left corner to pull the Steel within one.
The penalty renewed the crowd’s energy and the Steel went into all-out attack mode. Perhaps they could rally for a late point much like the New York Red Bulls II match in 2018 that saw a Chambers equalizer late in added time.
Bethlehem did make the most of their opportunities as they possessed the ball just outside the Tampa Bay box for almost the entirety of the remaining time. Several crosses into the box were attempted and the Steel were almost able to get on the end of a few. But McCarthy stood tall and there just wasn't enough time to break through the Rowdies defense again. The final minute ticked away after a Steel turnover allowed the Rowdies to take possession and to run out the clock.
1. The Rowdies had a fair amount of traveling support in Bethlehem. Those fans though included the families of McCarthy and Hoppenot. There were also multiple Guenzatti fans who must have started following him when he played with the New York Cosmos.
2. The fans who made it out to Goodman Stadium for the Steel’s brief return to the Lehigh Valley (announced attendance was 505) stayed involved throughout the match even though there wasn't always much to cheer for. Even after 60 minutes with little action, they immediately came to life as the Bethlehem attack got more dangerous later in the match.
3. Bethlehem was unable to follow up on their impressive victory over Saint Louis FC, but they don’t have much time to hang their heads over it. They’ll be back in action at Hartford this Friday.